Logo: University of Southern California

L.A. Chamber of Commerce Highlights VAST’s Partnership with "Ortho" High School’s Biomed Pathway

The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce holds its annual Principal for a Day event to create ties between the business and education communities.

November 12, 2015 —
Moderator David Rattray (L), L.A. Chamber of Commerce, USC Viterbi's VAST Administrator Dr. Katie Mills (C), and Ortho High School Principal Erick Mata at the Chamber's "Principal for a Day" Luncheon.
The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce fosters collaborations between the business and education communities through its Principal for a Day event each October. In support of the Chamber’s mission to expand the region’s educated and skilled workforce, business leaders shadow a high school principal for a morning; this year, 139 participants met after their school experience at the L.A. Hotel over lunch to hear a keynote conversation between a successful alliance. The featured partners were USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s VAST (Viterbi Adopt-a-School, Adopt-a-Teacher) program and Orthopaedic Hospital Medical Magnet School (nicknamed “Ortho”). Together, USC Viterbi VAST Administrator, Dr. Katie Mills, and Ortho High School Principal, Erick Mata, have initiated two long-term partnerships between USC Viterbi School of Engineering and Ortho’s biomed pathway faculty.

VAST’s mission is to inspire younger generations and their teachers through the creativity and possibilities of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). By working closely with the L.A. Chamber of Commerce’s Linked Learning Career Specialist, Brian Boyle, VAST’s Dr. Mills learned that Ortho High School had recently launched a new biomed pathway and sought to connect STEM courses to cutting-edge biomedical engineering research. Mills was simultaneously working with two USC Viterbi professors eager to share the broader impacts of their research with students in under-served schools. Located close to USC’s main campus, Ortho is one of the U.S. News & World Report's 2015 List of Best High Schools and serves a population that is 97% under-represented minorities, and 87% come from economically disadvantaged families. The resulting partnership was the focus of the luncheon’s conversation between Ortho Principal Mata and Dr. Mills, moderated by David Rattray, Executive Vice President of Education and Workforce Development at the L.A. Chamber and President of UNITE-LA. In his introduction, Mr. Rattray explained how these alliances can enhance student learning by bringing relevant university and industry expertise and guidance into the classroom.
Dr. McCain (R) with Ortho's Xiuleth Santibanez (L) & Center for Powerful Public School's Christine Yap (C) at Ortho High School.
Mills and Mata emphasized the importance of vision and responsiveness as keys to their collaboration. Mata encouraged fellow school administrators to recognize that potential partners from business and higher education sometimes need to move faster than the schools in order to cement an agreement. Mills explained that USC Viterbi faculty seek to create innovative collaborations that go deeper than the typical lecture by a professor on a school’s STEM Career Day, so VAST looks to partner with a principal willing to think “out of the box.”
The partnership began when USC Viterbi’s Dr. Megan McCain (Biomedical Engineering) and, shortly thereafter, Dr. Qiming Wang (Civil Engineering) requested help from VAST. The two assistant professors offer diverse perspectives in the breakthrough area known as “organs on a chip.” Newsweek defines this technique as “clear and flexible polymer microchips [that] are lined with human cells …. [and] joined together by blood vessel channels to simulate human physiology on a microscale and provide a cheaper, more reliable way to test new drugs.” Dr. McCain works with heart cells, researching how remodeling the cardiac myocyte microenvironment can alter cellular function, and Dr. Wang uses 3D printing to mimic the protein patterns in brain tissue.

First, Dr. McCain met over the summer with Ortho High School’s biomed faculty, brainstorming with them how to connect with the biomed cohort of students throughout the four years of their pathway curriculum. The Chamber’s Boyle as well as Sunny Min, from the Center for Powerful Public Schools, also advised during this meeting. The resulting plan begins with McCain working in year 1 with the 9th grade Biology and Genetics faculty, supplementing their curriculum by demonstrating how stem cells and cell differentiation are important in her own research. In year 2, McCain will interact with the same students in their chemistry course’s lessons in polymers and hydrogels, showing how she uses basic STEM concepts as the basis of sophisticated biomedical engineering. Her contributions will extend to the physics course in year 3 and anatomy and physiology course during this cohort’s senior year. Throughout the four years, there will be multiple field trips of Ortho students to McCain’s lab, plus she will visit the Ortho students at their campus as well. Dr. McCain is pictured above, meeting with Ortho High School’s Xiuleth Santibanez and Christine Yap, Director, The Center for Powerful Public Schools.
Dr. Wang (R), Principal Erick Mata (C), and Ortho biomed faculty (L).
With this engagement as a model, Dr. Wang also met with Ortho’s principal Erick Mata and the biomed faculty (see photo) to discuss how his research could also fit into the cohort’s curriculum. Because he uses “bioinspired materials and structures,” Dr. Wang uses “brain-on-a-chip” in a way that offers a fascinating contrast to Dr. McCain’s work. His 3D printing of the brain’s gyri proteins examines how cell morphology can be an aspect of autism. His work may lead to a test for earlier diagnosis of the neurodevelopmental disorder that affects as many as 1.1 out of 100 children in the United States.

Subsequently, VAST’s involvement with Ortho and Los Angeles Unified School District’s biomed pathway schools is growing far beyond these two partnerships. Dr. Mills now serves on the Advisory Board of Ortho High School, composed of representatives from local hospitals, health clinics, and other neighborhood organizations. This month, L.A. Chamber of Commerce’s Brian Boyle is convening a biomed panel consisting of Principal Erick Mata and other principals with biomed pathways to meet industry representatives to discuss how to best align STEM curricula to meet the region’s biomed needs. Representing USC Viterbi will be Dr. Joseph Cocozza, director of the USC Viterbi's Engineering Medical Therapeutic Technologies “Research Experience for Teachers” program supported by the National Science Foundation.

The Chamber’s annual event uniting school principals and industry leaders takes but a day, yet the benefits may well last the lifetime of STEM students though expanded college opportunities and higher paying career paths.